Wednesday, April 11, 2012

PAX East 2012: Things to do, people to meet

As a first time convention-goer, I had very little idea of what to expect of the PAX East extravaganza in Boston.

In some ways, it was not what I expected.  There were no major game announcements that I'm aware of, and even the stuff on display on the show floor tended to be minor updates to information we already had.  The demos and panels that were present were trapped behind massive lines that required substantial commitment.  Meanwhile, though some MMO's had senior developers manning their booths, it wasn't really an opportunity to ask all the hard-hitting questions that professional journalists dare not mention - though satisfying the fans is a plus, these folks were there to promote their products.  Even the swag was relatively limited (though my decision to steer clear of lines may have influenced that, and the swag I did get was very good stuff indeed).

As the song says, you can't always get what you want.  Even so, the things I found were in many ways better than the the things I might have expected.

The Road to PAX
The lowpoint of my PAX experience came very early.  Given unlimited time and money, I would definitely have preferred to fly in a day early and take the show at a measured, easy pace.  Instead, I work up at 4 AM to fly to Boston and arrive at the show floor around 11 AM - already a non-trivial day.

I arrived to find that they had run out of the day's allotment of swag bags.  Concerned that the MMO loot might find a similar fate, I set off on a rapid fire run around the perimeter, snagging codes from The Secret World, SWTOR, LOTRO, DDO, and Tera (none of which, as it happens, were in any danger of running out).  The one advantage to showing up on the second day was that I already knew what to expect on the show floor - nothing major and new.

At this point it was lunch time, so I grabbed an overpriced and mediocre convention center sandwich and wondered whether I had made a big mistake in spending the time and money to come to a place that, on a first pass, didn't have much to see.

Hope in unexpected places
With lowered expectations, I began my post-lunch circuit of the show at the Turbine booth.  I had a brief conversation with some DDO folks - not really my primary objective since the expansion is really aimed well above my characters' heads - before getting in line for the LOTRO hoodie promo.  Anyone willing to wish LOTRO a happy 5th birthday on camera was given a free hooded sweatshirt.

I asked the guy in the WB Games shirt watching the line and greeting people whether he posted in the forums.  He said he did, under the name Berephon.  Yes, the lore lead for the game, maker of the famous timeline of events that the public can't have, was smiling and waving at dozens of people who had no idea who he was.

I promptly extracted a few chuckles out of the man by asking a question that I've been dying to hit him with for years - how much time it take a normal person in Middle Earth to do all the travel that occurs in the epic book questlines.  After a good laugh, he conceded that the travel time was something that they just had to let go of in terms of the game design and the lore.  I noted that Elrond was right when he tells the player, at the start of Volume 3, that they are the only one capable of gathering all the rangers in time. 

It was a small moment, but the start of finding the hidden little moments that made this show worthwhile.

Dancing on chairs, and choices about lines
After stopping to listen to a panel at the SWTOR booth, I headed across the floor to see the sights and make it to Ferrel's book signing.  I've been listening to the man on podcasts for years, and have even been on his show twice, but I'm not sure that I will ever be able to look at it the same way now that I know that the guy isn't kidding when he suggests things like dancing on chairs to entertain the masses.  Kidding aside, it was great to finally put a face to the voice of Epic Slant. 

From here, it was time to start making choices about what exactly I was prepared to wait in line to see.  I was definitely starting to get tired, I already knew I had more possible activities in the evening than energy and time to do them, and I didn't want to overdo the afternoon on the show floor.  I was definitely surprised by how much demand there was to attend even the smallest-seeming booths and panels at the show.  I've always heard that everything at PAX has a line, and apparently this was true.

The one line I finally decided to wait in was the one to get in the Assassin's Creed III threater.  All told, this took about 40 minutes, for a chance to watch a developer-narrated preview of the gameplay in a room decorated to resemble colonial barracks.  The playthrough of a single sequence in the game probably took a mere five minutes or so of gameplay, but the commentary actually did manage to point out some interesting tidbits I might not have realized I was watching - efforts to make the climbable trees look more realistic, numbers of soldiers forming firing lines and shooting in formation, etc.   I enjoyed the video, and collected an inflatable hatchet for my time, though I'll concede that I did not line up for any more videos or demos.

Partying with Turbine
Everything I'd heard said that Turbine throws a great party at PAX, so I'd made RSVP'ing a top priority and picked this shindig over the numerous others (including a blogger tweet-up, parties hosted by The Secret World, Curse, and Bioware, and a Jonathan Coulton concert).   In a world where I had more time, I might have left the show early to nap and save some energy to hit more than one social event, but I guess I had just come to terms with the fact that attending an event as big as PAX means that you will necessarily miss some things that would have been worth going to.  In any case, it appears that I chose well.

Lining up to enter the party, I noticed a familiar logo on the shirt of the guy who had walked in at the same time I did, and realized that his voice sounded familiar.  Completely by accident, I had run into Chris from MMO Reporter.  In addition to his role as the head of a Canadian MMO Podcast syndicate, Chris was covering the show for PC Gamer.  It was interesting to hear about what he had seen (which we can all do via the podcast and upcoming videos), and he had definitely lined up way more formal interview time than I got by wandering the floor, but I was a bit surprised to hear largely the same impression I'd gotten of the show - some interesting tidbits but relatively little major news.  Perhaps PAX has gotten so big these days that it's only worth paying the cost of exhibiting for the biggest titles that are gearing up their marketing pushes for launches later this year.

Chris was not the only famous podcaster in attendance.  Jerry Snook - founder of DDOcast and now a member of DDO's community team - was in the house, along with longtime DDOCast PAX East correspondent Steiner-Davion and frequent guest-host Rowanheal.   Meanwhile, Turbine spared no expense, booking the back room of Jillian's across the street from Fenway park, providing free drink tickets and high quality swag.  (The highlight - an actual real-world cloak.)  For extra amusement value, they had the TV screens that would ordinarily be showing sports in most bars in Boston playing the promos for the LOTRO and DDO expansions instead - quite an unexpected sight.

On top of all that, I ended up getting to chat with Executive Producers Fernando (DDO) and Kate (LOTRO) Paiz for the better part of ten minutes about their experiences running their games through their now famous free to play conversations.  As Fernando tells it, one of the first questions the marketing people asked was how quickly they could retrofit DDO to free to play.  His response was very quickly if you didn't care about the quality of the product, and fortunately a more measured response won out.

Many couples might have been nervous about working together on such a high profile, high pressure project, but Fernando claims that things very quickly got too busy for them to get in each others' way.  Kate covered many of the business model systems, while Fernando worked more closely on the design and engineering side, and both had plenty of work to do.  I asked whether Turbine's shared engine made it easier to repeat the process with LOTRO, and Fernando definitely agreed that having two major projects running the current engine made it easier to justify large investments in this technology.  (In general, he said that LOTRO gets upgrades first, though DDO got to be the first in line during the conversion.)

Following up on this discussion, I asked Kate about the shift to the larger scale expansions in both games.  She confirmed that having the highly successful expansion launch in LOTRO definitely helped make the case for undertaking the larger project in DDO.  I'm still not 100% satisfied with this move, as I feel it undermines the a la carte choice of the model, but at least I can respect that they are trying more ambitious things with the larger revenue that has come under the new business model.

Winding Down
I finally headed out of the Turbine party a bit after 10 PM - perhaps a bit early by nightlife standards, but it had been a very long day and I had many sore muscles to show for it.  (Ironically, Bioware may have been exceedingly clever in providing comfortable seating in a portion of the SWTOR "booth" that served as a lounge and venue for several daily panels/Q&A's.  On paper it looked like a lot of underutilised space, but I wouldn't be surprised if tired convention-goers spent more time in view of the promotional videos and panels because it was a good place to rest.)

Sunday had much smaller crowds - after both Friday and Saturday sold out, there were plenty of badges to be had at the door, and I convinced my wife to tag along and demo some tabletop (yes, non-video) games.  The con organizers apparently had set aside an allocation of swag bags for Sunday, so I was able to get the loot that I missed out on Saturday morning.  The table top section of the convention was a real pleasant surprise - you can read reviews and buy games anywhere, but it's not every day that you can get people to teach you dozens of them just to see which ones you find interesting.

Cell phone reception at the con was sluggish, leading to delayed text message times that had Riannon and myself criss-crossing the show floor in an effort to introduce ourselves before heading out.  Riannon and Pete are another duo of folks I've been hanging out with online for years, and it was great to meet them as well.  That said, we were all pretty tired by this point in the con, and we all headed out our separate ways back home around lunchtime.

Overall
Far and away the best advice I got on attending the con was not to have my heart set on catching everything that was going on, as this seemed downright impossible.  I know I missed any number of things due to conflicts and aversion to lines, and that was just something to come to grips with. 

I saved some money through my less than optimal travel arrangements and staying with a friend in town, and I spent surprisingly little at the event itself - the Turbine swag in particular included several free items that I would have considered paying for.  That said, the cost of the weekend trip still comes pretty close to the total of what I spent on MMO's last year.  If not for the fact that both PAX locations happen to be in cities that my wife and I have reason to visit anyway, this trip would be very hard to justify.

That said, overall I had a good time at the con - in some ways despite the con itself.  The moments that are going to stick with me are not the games or the booths, but the people.  Perhaps in the same way that some of the things we do in MMO's can become fun in the right company, some of the less desirable quirks of the convention - long lines and limited information beyond what you could have read online for a fraction of the time and money - are worth overlooking.

1 comment:

Bhagpuss said...

I went to a lot of comic conventions in the 1980s, particularly UKCAC in London, the biggest UK con for a decade, which was organized by friends of mine. When I first started to go I tried to see everything and do everything but after the first few I found myself spending more and more time in the bar. By the end all I saw, apart from the bar, was the auction and costume parade.

I've never been to a games con and I really can't imagine I ever will. I just don't hold any game developers in the kind of esteem I held comic writers, artists and editors back then. I certainly wouldn't stand in a line even for 5 minutes to hear a game developer talk, watch a promo video or even get a hands-on with game.

On the other hand an opportunity to meet lots of people in person who you only know from their web presence would certainly be worth a trip. So long as we could all just sit in the bar for the whole weekend.